The discovery of ancient burial in a Cambridgeshire village has offered insights into the tragic stories of those considered outsiders in Medieval England.

Excavations near the village of Conington, in Cambridgeshire, uncovered the burial of a young woman aged around 15. 

She was buried face down in a pit, possibly with her ankles tied together. 

This unusual method of burial marks her out as different to other members of the community. 

In ninth-century Cambridgeshire, as a community prepared to abandon their settlement, they took down the elaborate entrance gate and replaced it with something unusual.


Wisbech Standard: Reconstruction of the early Medieval gatehouse at Conington.Reconstruction of the early Medieval gatehouse at Conington. (Image: Oxford Archaeology)

The remains of a young woman, aged around 15, buried face down in a pit and perhaps with her ankles bound together.

Evidence suggests that this young woman experienced many hardships during her short life. Her unusual burial gives us insight into a rare early Medieval burial practice.

The young woman was found by archaeologists at an early Medieval settlement near the village of Conington in Cambridgeshire, part of the National Highways A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme, where excavations took place between 2016 and 2018.

Her remains have now been studied by experts as part of ongoing analysis by MOLA-Headland Infrastructure (MHI), and now archaeologists can begin to tell her story.  

Although by the ninth century, the kingdoms of England were Christian, burial in graveyards associated with churches was not the norm.

Early Medieval England did not have set burial traditions, however, one consistent aspect of burials in this period was the body being arranged face up. Being buried face down in a pit marks this young woman out as different.

Analysis of her remains by MOLA osteologists (human bone experts) revealed evidence of childhood malnutrition.

"She also had a spinal joint disease, made worse by carrying out hard manual labour from a young age. This all suggests she was of low social status," according to MOLA.

"We don’t know exactly how she died, but because of her age, and with her remains showing no evidence for a long, serious illness, she may have died suddenly or unexpectedly.  

"The pit the young woman was buried in previously held a large wooden post, part of the enclosure’s entry gate, which was taken down as the settlement’s use came to an end.

"While the reuse of this large hole as a grave could have been purely opportunistic, the face-down placement of the body suggests the location holds much more importance and has similarities with other unusual early Medieval burials."

Wisbech Standard: The Conington burial site.The Conington burial site. (Image: MOLA)


"To be buried face-down is thought to have been a social expression of ‘otherness’, a burial practice reserved for people considered outside of early Medieval society.

"This includes those who looked or acted differently from the rest of the community, those of low social status, as well as individuals who suffered violent or unexpected deaths."  

MOLA senior human osteologist Don Walker explains: "This burial provides an interesting, albeit tragic, opportunity to view the realities of life, and death, for those seen as outsiders in the past.

"We will probably never know exactly how this young woman was viewed by the community she grew up in, but the way she was buried tells us she was almost certainly seen as different.

"Her burial rites may have reflected the nature of her death, or her social identity or that of her family.

"As well as being buried face down on a boundary, the position of her ankles suggests they may have been tied together. This implies that the community took extra measures to ensure she could not ‘return’ from the grave."